In his poetry collection, “We Inherit What the Fires Left,” William Evans explores how his relationship with his 8-year-old daughter, Amira, was shaped by his relationship with his own father. The poems also highlight the unique experience of being black in a suburban environment.
Much of poet William Evans' new book, “We Inherit What the Fires Left,” is a love letter to his 8-year-old daughter, Amira. Whether she's turning cartwheels, pleading for a cookie at dinner or staring in wonderment at a deer, a palpable joy surrounds her.
“You laugh like everything is not burning,” Evans writes about Amira in the closing poem, “Lore.”
“That poem addresses how my daughter made me see life in a very different way,” Evans, 40, of the Northeast Side, said in an interview. “I've witnessed a lot of death when I was younger, and that made me desensitized.”Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and evening newsletters
Released last week by Simon & Schuster, “We Inherit What the Fires Left” explores the ways in which fatherhood has changed Evans, who co-founded the pop culture website blacknerdproblems.com. It also examines his relationship with his own parents, especially his father. Several poems are titled “Inheritance,” which is the central theme of the book.
“(But) what does inheritance mean?” Evans said. “Are we just talking monetary inheritance? Are we talking ideals? Are we talking traumas? Are we talking experience? … I wanted to explore that in as many facets as I could.”
Evans' experiences with death are peppered throughout the book. One poem references a friend pulled from a river, while another mentions his “first two crushes,” who are buried in the same cemetery.
Evans tries to shield Amira as best he can from these sorts of predicaments. In the poem “Little Lie,” for example, Evans recalls when he avoided telling her a fatal car accident had occurred as they passed by an ambulance and a damaged bicycle. In the poem “Might Have to Kill,” he describes the time he opted not to deal a fatal blow to a spider at her request.
In many instances in the book, Evans weaves experiences with his daughter together with flashbacks to his childhood. He begins one poem by talking about managing his daughter's nosebleeds, which her doctor described as “natural,” given the dry air. Then, in a jarring turn, Evans makes a connection to some harsh physical punishments he received as a youth.
“I don't remember anything natural about my own blood,” he writes. “When I found it, there was a reason, a red hand that was not my own.”
Evans said the most difficult poems to write were the ones about his father.
“I think the book shows the true evolution of our relationship, (including) our hardships and our reconciliation,” he said. “I think as I've gotten older and especially as I became a father, I have a much more generous relationship with him. I just feel like I understand my father so much more than I did 10 years ago.”
Both Evans and his father have the shared experience of navigating suburban life as an African American male — or being “invisible, and then suddenly not,” Evans writes — and knowing what it means to raise children in that environment. There are poems about Evans being profiled jogging around the neighborhood and being the only black person at a dinner party.
In the book, he also grapples with explaining racism to his daughter and worrying that her intelligence won't be properly recognized in school.
“You haven't been right since your high school teacher told you to stop showing off in class,” Evans writes, referring to his own experience. “Now you get nauseous when your daughter aces her spelling test.”
Evans said his intent was to demonstrate that everyday life can take on so many other elements for black families.
“I wanted to present stories that were about domesticity and what we call the mundane, and how they were elevated because of (my ethnicity),” he said.